Inspiring History

Historians’ motivation for researching the subjects they are passionate about are varied. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been able to acknowledge the roots of our interests, often so very personal, emotional, and subjective. Everything from family trips to castles, children’s television programmes, and major political events noticed in childhood push us to know more.

I’ve talked about one of the causes of my own love of history before. It is Ruth M. Arthur’s The Saracen Lamp (1970), which I read as a child. I remembered this in 2016 when writing an epilogue for Feeling Things, the wonderful volume on emotional objects edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, and Sarah Randle. I wanted to handle The Saracen Lamp as well as remember it, so I found one online and bought it. I sourced the copy that I recognised from childhood, the 1978 edition, and opening it prompted a sensory and emotional memory of being a child. It made me fall in love again with Margery Gill’s beautiful illustrations, magical line-drawings of medieval life.

My memories of this ‘magical’ artefact, helped me in my epilogue to reflect on the relationship between objects, emotions, and identity. As I noted in my chapter ‘Moving Objects: Emotional Transformation, Tangibility, and Time-Travel’: ‘In this book I see my love of gender and family history, and belief in the power of material culture’. I went on to talk about the ways Davis’ book inspired me as a historian in a short video made for Oxford Brookes Think Human Festival in 2018 as part of a series called ‘Books that made me’. I also wonder now if my choice of the name Gabriel for my son was influenced by the protagonist’s brother having that same name! But crucially, this childhood object was part of my thinking through how to situate the individual, idiosyncratic response to emotional objects within more general historical factors. As I observed

emotional autobiographies can be written to great effect not just about individuals, but also about families, communities, and nations, to offer new insights into societies across time and place. Perhaps what strikes me most about my egotistical game of ‘I have an object, therefore I am who I am’ is its cultural and historical specificity; it reveals a life in a precise time and place. Although yours and my emotional objects might differ, they will be composed of shared items and forms, for they are shaped in very similar ways which reveal societal and cultural rules.

Serendipitously, I discovered just recently that I can confidently stand by my proposal that we can read outwards from an individual’s emotional object to broader, historicisable shared influences. This is because Professor Jennifer Jones got in touch to let me know that she had read my chapter in Feeling Things. She was startled to see my reflections on Arthur’s book. She told me that as a girl living in Chicago in the early 1970s, she devoured every book Ruth M. Arthur wrote. But The Saracen Lamp was a special favorite. She explained:

The book was so special to me that when it came time to celebrate the summer that I finished writing my first book, Sexing la Mode: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France (2004), I bought a copy of The Saracen Lamp on eBay and spent an entire day luxuriating in the story. 

Jennifer’s copy of her book.

Jennifer’s book is a wonderful history of French fashion culture, which uses material culture to explore the gendering of modern commercial culture. My publications focus on the relationship between gender, emotions, and material culture. It cannot simply be an uncanny coincidence that both Jennifer and I read Ruth M. Arthur’s fiction as girls and that it inspired us both to study the history of gender, family, and objects? Clearly, we are products of our cultural time and place to the extent that we could respond similarly to the SAME emotional object. Interestingly, it also shows we are not prisoners of one cultural moment. For when I got my copy of The Saracen Lamp and read it avidly, I was more surprised by the aspects of it that I’d forgotten than those I’d remembered.

I had recalled well the beguilingly evocative descriptions of historical artefacts and place, especially clothing and buildings, and how the lamp was the device used to move the reader through different centuries, with a wonderful dash of the supernatural. Indeed Arthur’s books are described as ‘timeslip romances‘. What I’d forgotten was the exoticism of the figure of the Saracen, Yusuf/Joseph, ‘brave as a lion’, who once captured by a Crusader became the Count’s loyal servant. He was ‘a fine looking man, a little younger than my father’ (p. 10) says Melisande, the fourteen-year-old protagonist. Yusuf gives her the lamp he has crafted himself when she leaves southern France to be married to an English knight. This is secretly gifted because her father banished Yusuf a few months before. Melisande leaves with her prospective husband, bereft at leaving her family and the Saracen. It is only months later that she learns from her older brother that Joseph took his own life the day after her departure, and that he had been banished because he had wanted to marry Melisande. That’s an age gap that would not be presented romantically today, to say the least.

This book speaks to me of memories of my childhood, and evokes several times and places, real and imagined. I can see aspects of all this in the way I think about and write history. Are there more historians (perhaps only female ones?) who grew up in the ’70s-80s whose shared similar cultural and imaginative worlds shaped their research interests? As Jennifer asked:

I wonder how many other historians who focus on gender, family, and material culture were shaped by the magical worlds recreated by Ruth M. Arthur?!

If anyone reading this has similar experiences, drop a comment. I’d love to know more about emotional objects that shape lives.

History, Emotions and Memories

In this post I want to talk about the power of literature in helping people express their emotions. Scholars working on memory show that people usually remember events that were linked with very strong emotions. It is as if the emotion – whatever it might be – love, grief, joy, fear – pins the event into the brain. You can read about this here.

This really struck me when I was reading autobiographies written by people in the middle to gentry social ranks, from the 1750s to 1840s, seeking out how writers discussed their parents.

When people were talking about their fathers in their autobiographies, or talking about themselves as fathers, I noticed that quite a few used the image of a rural labouring father.

burns, cotter's returnhome

Verse 2 of The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Image deposited on Future Museum co.uk.

This was a fairly common pastoral motif in poetry, paintings, engravings, and fiction in the eighteenth century.[1] Central to this image was small children’s joy at their father’s return, running to kiss him and sitting on his knee. It was a scene in several cottage genre paintings, like William Redmore Bigg’s Saturday Evening: Return from Labour, which is the cover of my book Parenting in England, and on the Home page of my blog. Etienne Aubry’s l’Amour Paternel (1775) is another lovely example, demonstrating the father’s eagerness to meet his child on his return, not only through their embrace but his abandoned work bag.

Perhaps the most well-known examples are in the popular Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) by Thomas Gray:

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

Or busy housewife ply her evening care:

No children run to lisp their sire’s return,

Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

William_Blake_-_The_Poems_of_Thomas_Gray,_Design_109,_-Elegy_Written_in_a_Country_Church-Yard.-_-_Google_Art_Project

and Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, 1784-5:

At length his lonely cot appears in view,

Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;

Th’ expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through

To meet their dad, wi flichterin noise and glee.

His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,

His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie’s smile,

The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,

Does a’ his weary kiaugh and care beguile,

An makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.[3]

This cultural motif had long Classical roots, but it filtered through to a plebeian readership by the end of the eighteenth century. For example, D Eaton portrayed an idyll [soon to be lost thanks to the effects of the war] in 1795 where the poor labourer returned home a welcoming wife and ‘little prattlers’ who sat on his knee.[4] The rural labouring man embodied the ideal of the father in a period of sensibility: tender and emotionally bound to his infants, as well as a hard-working provider. It conveyed the sense that to have a family to support was somehow ennobling for a man – it gave the labourer a reason to labour – thereby making labour have a value rather than being an end in itself.

What amazed me was how this rather sweet, moving image was used by writers to evoke their personal emotional experience. Dorothea Herbert quoted the stanza from Gray at the start of the chapter in which she described the ‘black chaos’ following her father’s death in 1803.[5] Actually, several parts of Gray’s poem were mentioned by memoirists, as if its intensely melancholic tone helped them talk through their feelings.

Thomas Wright (1736-1797), a relatively humble West Yorkshire man, used the verse from Gray to talk about his sense of loss as a father, when discussing the death of his favourite son John in July 1783. Eight and a half years old, the boy became ill very quickly and died in his father’s arms a day or so later . Thomas referred to the ‘killing image’ of his ‘darling child’s passing’, which was seared in his mind. It seems as if this dreadful memory was verbalised through Gray’s words. For, writing a decade or more later, Thomas moved into the first person when describing the traumatic event, suddenly and literally talking to his son to tell him how much he missed him:

I shall no more hear thy sweet voice eagerly blessing me, and when returning home, thou “No more shalt run to lisp thy sires return,/Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share”’ [5]

Thomas subtly became the rural labouring father in writing through his grief. Clearly, this binding together of provision and emotion seems to have powerfully impacted on some fathers and children.

For more on this, do have a look at my book Parenting in England.


[1] For popularity of such prints see B. E. Maidment, Reading Popular Prints 1790-1870, Manchester, 1996 and Christiana Payne, Rustic simplicity: scenes of cottage life in nineteenth-century British Art (1998), passim.

[2] Robert Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, in Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, Kilmarnock, 1786 , pp. 124-137.  This was accompanied by illustrations of the moment of return. For example, Thomas Bewick’s wood engraving, copied in Maidment, Popular Prints, p. 114.

[3] John Barrell, Spirit of Despotism, chapter 5.

[4] Dorothea Herbert, Retrospections of Dorothea Herbert, 1770-1789, London, 1929, p. 406.

[5] Wright, Thomas (ed.), Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Birkenshaw in the county of York, 1736-1797 (London, 1864).